TV can be a scary place, and some of its worst offenders are also the best-written and most seductive.
That’s nothing new; TV’s been scaring me most of my life in one form or the other. Early on there was the deadpan, spooky introduction to “Project U.F.O.,” in which government officials investigated alien sightings (this was way before “X-Files”). Then there was “In Search Of,” in which Leonard Nimoy told me the planets would line up in 1980 and there would be devastating earthquakes and floods and I believed him. The apocalyptic-loving switch in me went off and is still running today.
That frisson we feel when something as mundane and part-of-the-family as the boob tube first gives us a chill is an addictive thing. And all I can think is that based on the truly scary stuff that’s been flooding TV shows lately – I’m not the only one.
Last week I watched cannibals tuck in on a not-yet-dead victim, who then turned things around by telling them he was “tainted” meat – since he’d been bitten by a zombie. Thanks, “Walking Dead.” And over on “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” the old trope of the evil clown has me going off the deep end because of the line from one of his victims, “What happened to the rest of your mask?”
TV has definitely been heading into strange and stranger areas, something far more insidious and spooky than the once-and-future Spock (wrongly) predicting the end of the world. And we have a hard time not loving the villains and morally-ambiguous characters it has been giving us, in part because the actors playing them relish the chance to be very good at being very bad.
“Whether you’re playing Hitler, or Stalin, or some appalling serial killer, you don’t judge,” “The Following’s” James Purefoy (who plays the very bad, very charismatic Joe Carroll) told me. “You just get into their heads and understand where they’re coming from. If you do it honestly, the audience will judge for you. The best characters are the ones where the audience slips and slides and never quite makes up their mind how they feel.”
Purefoy as Carroll is terrific; he’s so good he makes me want to root for him, though in part that’s because the FBI and Kevin Bacon are generally the dumbest investigators I’ve ever seen. But the show gives good fright without too many obvious horror-movie turns (creator Kevin Williamson was behind both “Dawson’s Creek” and the “Scream” films, so that tells you where his mind’s at) – and that’s the trick in writing an awesome bad guy: Making him worth rooting for, then making your audience hate themselves for doing that rooting.
On “Hannibal,” the slippage comes in a different shape: Our titular character (played by Mads Mikkelson) appeared to be turning the profiler assigned to catch him (Will Graham, played by Hugh Dancy) into someone as sociopathic as himself. And for a while, it really wasn’t clear whether he succeeded (I’m still not entirely sure). But the blurred lines on that show come from writers who know they’re writing yin and yang when telling Hannibal’s and Graham’s stories – with the yin sometimes becoming the yang, and vice-versa.
Showrunner Bryan Fuller admits he’s long been lured to the dark side. “Growing up I was rooting for [“Star Wars’”] Han and Luke and Leia, but Darth was so interesting and he had better wardrobe,” he told me. It’s hard not to fetishize the bad guy in our fictions, because we are able to see ourselves in them – even if that is a false impression. Someone on television is in your living room, and there’s a familiarity to them being there. So you forgive them their trespasses. It’s fiction, and I’m seduced.”
That said, any show – however well-written and well-acted – has to know that there are lines that cannot be crossed, not if you still want to keep that audience under your spell. Cannibalism? No problem. Torture? Well, sure. Incestual relationships? Why not. But don’t bother the animals.
Really, don’t: “[My character] slaughtered his way through the Eastern seaboard,” says Purefoy. “Then on one show he wants to sort the men from the boys – the ones with psychopathic tendencies from the ones who don’t have them: If they can kill a fly, all well and good. A spider, fine. But a cat? We did that and the shitstorm that hit me the following day after the cat died was horrible. ‘I loved it when you were a serial killer, but now that you’re killing cats, I’m off!’ Can we talk about that first part of the sentence?”
Of course we can. I’ve been doing it my whole life. Because, see, it doesn’t have to be Halloween for TV to scare me. TV scares me a lot. And I think I like it.